Thirty nine years ago today, April 7, 1978, Prince released his debut album, For You.
I haven’t written about Prince yet, despite a number of release dates earlier in the year for albums like Lotusflower, 3121, MPLSound, Girl 6, 4 Those Of U On Valium, and, of course, Sign ‘O’ The Times. In some ways, it feels like anything I might write would be redundant given the hundreds of thousands of words that have been written about him in the past year. In part, it’s because his passing still stirs a lot of emotion for me.
But his debut album seemed like a natural place to start. I know that For You is often considered to be among the least of Prince’s output, but I’ve never understood why. It’s not as adventuresome as some later works and certainly lacks some of the virtuoso skills that would come to characterize his output, but there are a lot of hints at his future greatness. And I still find this album to be an amazing work of art in context: it was written and performed by an eighteen year old kid.
To this day it still astounds me that Prince performed every sound you hear on the record. And while it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that he performed 29 different instruments in the process (credits include “instruments” such as fingersnaps and handclaps and variations on instruments like electric guitar and acoustic guitar), it’s still an impressive feat.
The nine songs on this album fly by in under 35 minutes, and that includes a minute long multi-tracked a cappella intro. I’m not so blind a fan that I’d say the record overall is an unqualified masterpiece, but the frequent moments of brilliance shine so brightly that it is still essential listening for any Prince enthusiast. The funky bounce of “In Love” that opens the LP is immediately infectious almost 40 years later, sounding timeless even now. The classic “Soft And Wet” went to number 12 on the Billboard Soul charts and the only surprise there is that it didn’t go higher. It’s amusing now that “Soft And Wet” is cited as an early example of Prince’s hyper-sexualized lyrics. While certainly suggestive, they wouldn’t even cause a raised eyebrow in today’s pop culture.
Hey, lover, I got a sugarcane
That I want to lose in you
Baby can you stand the pain…
You’re just as soft as a lion tamed
You’re just as wet as the evening rain
How will I take it when you call my name?
Prince proves he can do straight-up R&B on his debut as well, with cuts like “Baby” and “Crazy You.” However, the biggest surprise on the record is the final song. After nearly half an hour of funk and R&B, and even “My Love Is Forever,” which could be passed off as disco if someone were so inclined, Prince closes with the five minute “I’m Yours” which is nothing short of a rock and roll revelation.
Fifteen or twenty years ago, I was in the local cigar lounge and reading an article in Rolling Stone on the 50 best guitarists. This was before the magazine had become the rag it is now. And yet when someone asked me about the article I expressed my disbelief and disgust that Prince was not on the list anywhere. Even more astonishing was my fellow patron’s insistence that, “Well, you know, Prince isn’t really that much of a guitarist.” Then, of course, Prince played the Super Bowl halftime show in 2007 in the midst of a downpour and forever silenced all the naysayers on that account once and for all.
In retrospect, all it would have taken was playing “I’m Yours” for any doubters to end that conversation in my favor. Not only is the electric guitar on this track sheer stadium rock, but the bassline and the drums on this number would put any 80s hair metal band to shame. Prince’s falsetto is secondary to the music on this cut and he tears loose on every instrument in the studio. This song, more than any other, seems to defy the possibility that this is all the work of one person playing multiple instruments with innumerable overdubs. This is clearly the work of a minor god.
There’s no good way to wrap up this entry, since I could spend the entire weekend talking about Prince and his music. But if you’re a fan at all and you’ve never heard For You in its entirety, I suggest clicking on the link in the first paragraph and getting a copy overnighted. If you haven’t revisited it in awhile, let this serve as a reminder to do so. This is the birth of what would become known as The Minneapolis Sound and the first testament to one of the most prolific and influential artists across two millennia.